Vulnerability Scanning: What is It and How Does It Work


Vulnerability scanning is more of a requirement than a suggestion for businesses handling sensitive data.

For those unaware, vulnerability scanning is an automated process that identifies potential weaknesses in computers, networks and communications equipment. In other words, vulnerability scanning strengthens your security by outlining any issues you might face well in advance.

In this post we’re going to be looking at vulnerability scanning in full, including a breakdown of penetration testing vs vulnerability scanning, so that your understanding of this very important topic is as comprehensive as possible.

As experts in this subject, we’ll also touch on vulnerability scanning services. There are quite a few scanning services available at the moment. But what we’ll be suggesting goes beyond that of most services.

So stay tuned.

To begin, let’s look at a detailed definition of vulnerability scanning.

What is Vulnerability Scanning?

As we’ve mentioned already, vulnerability scanning is all about identifying any potential vulnerabilities across network devices such as firewalls, routers, switches, servers and applications.

These programs rely heavily on assessments to measure the security readiness and minimize any risks. Minimising risks being one of the main advantages of vulnerability scanning, generally (more on the advantages in just a second).

High-quality vulnerability scans can search for over 50,000 vulnerabilities and are required as per PCI DSS, FFIEC, and GLBA mandates. They can either be instigated manually, or run on a scheduled basis. In terms of length, the process can take several minutes to as long as several weeks.

Vulnerability scanning plays a significant role in something known as vulnerability management. Vulnerability management prioritises and mitigates risky vulnerabilities before they can be exploited.

What’s the difference between vulnerability scanning and vulnerability management? The former is a way to enable your vulnerability management strategies. The two share a common goal, but vulnerability scanning is more of a direct action in comparison. On the other hand, vulnerability management is a process.

A laptop half open in darkness

Advantages of Vulnerability Scanning

Outside of keeping your organisation safe and secure, there are a number of reasons why you should be running regular vulnerability scans. For example, did you know that scanners perform hundreds if not thousands of checks at a significantly faster rate?

This is but one of the advantages of vulnerability scanning, below you’ll find more:

  • Cost-Effective: With how fast it is, utilising this type of scanning is known to save organisations a lot of money.
  • Automation: It’s an automated process, meaning it can be run on a schedule or manually depending on your own preferences.
  • Compliance: Many vulnerability scanning solutions include checks to ensure that everything complies with the latest security standards.
  • Speed: Again, scanners can perform hundreds if not thousands of checks at a significantly faster rate.
  • Accuracy: Scanners are a lot more accurate when it comes to outlining any potential vulnerabilities.

What’s more, vulnerability scanning gives organisations the ability to keep up to date with individuals and groups intent on compromising set systems.

If we can use an analogy:

Hackers are forever looking for new and innovative ways to get into your system to take data from within. Vulnerability scanning identifies these holes, which you can then board up to ensure that your organisation is a completely guarded fortress.

Generally speaking, utilising vulnerability scanning also gives you greater confidence. This applies to everyone from the director of IT to board members, to the CEO directly. How could it not, when regular scans guarantee that your infrastructure is being reviewed periodically to test for any gaps that hackers could exploit.

Knowing that your organisation is safe and secure allows you to focus on other aspects of your role. Again, this is cost-effective security that empowers you in more ways than one!

5 Types of Vulnerability Assessment Scans

Vulnerability scanners can be categorised into 5 types, each based on the type of assets they scan within an organisation. For example, network-based scans identify possible network security attacks and vulnerable systems on networks.

Network-based scanners discover unknown or unauthorised devices on a network, and then help determine if there are unknown perimeter points on the network. This includes any unauthorised remote access servers, or connections to insecure networks of business partners.

We’ve gathered all 5 types of vulnerability scans for reference:

  • Network-based scans
  • Host-based scans
  • Wireless scans
  • Application scans
  • Database scans

Host-based scanners are used to locate and identify vulnerabilities in things like servers, workstations or other network hosts. Wireless scanners are used to identify rogue access points, and validate that your network is configured securely.

Application scanners test websites to detect any known vulnerabilities in networks or web applications. And finally, database scanners look at weak points in a database to prevent malicious attacks.

A series of code on a computer screen

How Does Vulnerability Scanning Work?

For vulnerability scanning to work, certain tools will be required. Scanning tools, commonly referred to as Asset Discovery, Attack Surface Management, or Key Terrain Analysis, identify and create an inventory of all systems connected to a network. For each device it identities, it also attempts to identify the operating system that is running and the software installed on it. Open ports and user accounts are also outlined.

Once this tool has built up an inventory, the vulnerability scanner then checks each item in the inventory against one or more databases (those with known vulnerabilities). In terms of what it looks for in those databases, scanners will look at:

  • Coding bugs
  • Packet construction anomalies
  • Default configurations
  • And other pathways to your data

The result is an overview of known vulnerabilities that demand the attention of the organisation, typically displayed in a report-like format. From there, organisations can improve their security, fully knowing where they need to dedicate their attention.

This is quite similar to penetration testing, which is why so many use these terms interchangeably – or mix up their definitions. In our next section, we’ll be looking at penetration testing vs vulnerability scanning to outline those main differences.

Penetration Testing vs Vulnerability Scanning

Before we mention anything about the differences between these two processes, it’s important that we identify what penetration testing is, otherwise, how are you to tell the difference?

Penetration testing – or ‘pen testing’ as most refer to it as – involves identifying vulnerabilities in your system architecture, similar to vulnerability scanning. Only this process validates the weakness by actively exploiting that vulnerability.

In other words, it simulates attacks on your network, applications, or infrastructure. This is a lot different to vulnerability scanning which acts more like a checkup than an attack – one that is orchestrated by a real person. Which is one of the main differences between penetration testing and vulnerability scanning.

You see, vulnerability scanning is entirely automated when up and running. Penetration testing, on the other hand, is completed by a real person, again to simulate what it’s like to be hacked in a real-world setting.

To sum up the differences between the two:

  • Vulnerability scanning is mostly an automated process, pen testing requires a real person for it to be completed.
  • Penetration testing simulates an attack in great detail, whereas vulnerability scanning is more of an identification of certain problems that could arise.
  • Pen tests tend to be a lot more extensive in comparison to vulnerability scans, even outlining the root of cause of any vulnerability.

A series of blue lights representing a network

Penetration Testing vs Vulnerability Scanning: Which is Better?

Why people feel the need to pit penetration testing against vulnerability scanning is beyond me. Especially when you consider the power that comes in leveraging both to strengthen the overall security of your organisation!

To leverage both is to come at organisation’s security from both sides. With your vulnerability scanning, you can gather reports weekly, monthly, or quarterly, thus keeping you aware of any issues in your organisation.

And then with penetration testing, you can deeply examine your security network to the nth degree, helping you further uncover any issues that were raised by your vulnerability scan reports.

Basically, in the great penetration testing vs vulnerability scanning debate there is only one winner, and that’s you! One is your sword, and the other your shield against hackers looking to take valuable information from you.

How TLR Approaches Vulnerability Scanning

Remember when we said we’d talk about vulnerability scanning services and present you with something that goes beyond? It’s now time we do that, by talking about the work we do here at TLR Global.

Cavalry, or CAVS for short, is our solution to vulnerability scanning. A solution that enhances human operators while providing all of the benefits that come from running regular scans of your organization in search of vulnerabilities.

CAVS periodically scans through your infrastructure, either internally or externally, empowering operators and reducing the manual efforts required. What’s more, the system acts quickly, and seamlessly alerts you of any discovered security threats.

It works in three distinct stages:

  1. Scan: The scan begins with a discovery phase to identify all assets within scope, even those you may not know about. This is a major advantage of CAVS over other vulnerability scanners. Rather than review known assets, we will find assets you may not know about through our unique discovery approach.
  2. Analysis: Cavalry automatically gathers information about the target network and identifies new systems and potential weaknesses through its findings.
  3. Alert: Detailed scan reports are then generated. Reports are provided in multiple formats, a summary report for executives, a full report for operators.

We should also mention that Cavalry’s results can also be delivered programmatically to other security tools like a SIEM. This is but one of the unique benefits of working alongside TLR to stay on the cyber offensive.

Another great benefit is how all scans run automatically in the background. Meaning you don’t need to worry about any interruptions to your network coverage, allowing you to go about your work day as normal, uninterrupted!

If you’d like to learn more about Cavalry, check out our dedicated page right here.

Vulnerability Scanning: What is It and How Does It Work?

Hopefully, you now understand what vulnerability scanning is, how it works, and its advantages to any organisation looking to stay on the cyber offensive.

What these scans do for organisations is near priceless when you consider the long term ramifications of being hacked and potentially losing valuable information to hackers.

Do keep in mind that vulnerability testing is a lot different than penetration testing. One is optimised for providing a general overview, identifying potential holes in your organisation. Whereas the other is all about exploiting your vulnerabilities in a simulated setting.

Those are significant differences that you need to keep in mind when looking for vulnerability scanning services that appeal to you and your own requirements and specifications.

There’s many vulnerability scanning services to pick and choose from. But our Cavalry system is a cut above the rest, ensuring that you are always on the cyber offensive. We’re offering cost-effective security solutions that do all the heavy work for you.

We empower you to lead from the front. If you’d like to learn more about Cavalry, or list of pen test services, then be sure to get in touch.

Vulnerability Scanning FAQs

What is vulnerability scanning?

Vulnerability scanning is all about identifying any potential vulnerabilities across network devices such as firewalls, routers, switches, servers and applications. Scanners typically assess any vulnerabilities and then provide reports detailing its findings.

Is a vulnerability scanner a tool?

Yes. Vulnerability scanners are automated tools that help strengthen your security posture. Some vulnerability scanner tools are a lot more efficient and effective than others. So, it’s important that you choose the right tool based on your own preferences.

What is the difference between penetration testing and vulnerability scanning?

Despite the two having a range of similarities, the two are very different from each other. Penetration testing is about simulating what it’s like to be hacked to identify the root causes of it. Vulnerability scanning is about identifying vulnerabilities through analysis.

What does Cavalry mean?

Cavalry is our solution to attack surface management, vulnerability scanning, and reporting. The name of this solution comes from two places. Internally, we call our proprietary system of discovery and vulnerability scanning, “the CAVS” for short or “Continuous Automated Vulnerability Scanning” for long. The second inspiration is from the military unit. The Cavalry leads the charge, just like our Cavalry system should be the first tool utilized in your arsenal.

Become cyber resilient

Get in touch today to see how we can make you more cyber resilient. Empowering you to lead from the front.

Written by

Dave Roberts